Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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4.1. Introduction and Scope This chapter assesses our understanding of the implications of climate change for the hydrological cycle, water resources, and their management. Since the beginnings of concern over the possible consequences of global warming, it has been widely recognized that changes in the cycling of water between land, sea, and air could have very significant impacts across many sectors of the economy, society, and the environment. The characteristics of many terrestrial ecosystems, for example, are heavily influenced by water availability and, in the case of instream ecosystems and wetlands, by the quantity and quality of water in rivers and aquifers. Water is fundamental to human life and many activities—most obviously agriculture but also industry, power generation, transportation, and waste management—and the availability of clean water often is a constraint on economic development. Consequently, there have been a great many studies into the potential effects of climate change on hydrology (focusing on cycling of water) and water resources (focusing on human and environmental use of water). The majority of these studies have concentrated on possible changes in the water balance; they have looked, for example, at changes in streamflow through the year. A smaller number of studies have looked at the impacts of these changes for water resources—such as the reliability of a water supply reservoir or the risk of flooding—and even fewer explicitly have considered possible adaptation strategies. This chapter summarizes key findings of research that has been conducted and published, but it concentrates on assessing opportunities and constraints on adaptation to climate change within the water sector. This assessment is based not only on the few studies that have looked explicitly at climate change but also on considerable experience within different parts of the water sector in adapting to changing circumstances in general.

This chapter first summarizes the state of knowledge of climate change impacts on hydrology and water resources (Section 4.2), before assessing effects on the hydrological cycle and water balance on the land (Section 4.3). Section 4.4 examines potential changes in water use resulting from climate change, and Section 4.5 assesses published work on the impacts of climate change for some water resource management systems. Section 4.6 explores the potential for adaptation within the water sector. The final two sections (Sections 4.7 and 4.8) consider several integrative issues as well as science and information requirements. The implications of climate change on freshwater ecosystems are reviewed in Chapter 5, although it is important to emphasize here that water management is increasingly concerned with reconciling human and environmental demands on the water resource. The hydrological system also affects climate, of course. This is covered in the Working Group I contribution to the Third Assessment Report (TAR); the present chapter concentrates on the impact of climate on hydrology and water resources.

At the outset, it is important to emphasize that climate change is just one of many pressures facing the hydrological system and water resources. Changing land-use and land-management practices (such as the use of agrochemicals) are altering the hydrological system, often leading to deterioration in the resource baseline. Changing demands generally are increasing pressures on available resources, although per capita demand is falling in some countries. The objectives and procedures of water management are changing too: In many countries, there is an increasing move toward “sustainable” water management and increasing concern for the needs of the water environment. For example, the Dublin Statement, agreed at the International Conference on Water and the Environment in 1992, urges sustainable use of water resources, aimed at ensuring that neither the quantity nor the quality of available resources are degraded. Key water resources stresses now and over the next few decades (Falkenmark, 1999) relate to access to safe drinking water, water for growing food, overexploitation of water resources and consequent environmental degradation, and deterioriation in water quality. The magnitude and significance of these stresses varies between countries. The late 1990s saw the development of several global initiatives to tackle water-related problems: The UN Commission on Sustainable Development published the “Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World” (WMO, 1997), and the World Water Council asked the World Commission for Water to produce a vision for a “water-secure world” (Cosgrove and Rijbersman, 2000). A series of periodical reports on global water issues was initiated (Gleick, 1998). The impacts of climate change, and adaptation to climate change, must be considered in the context of these other pressures and changes in the water sector.

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